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As city administrator leaves, Mayor Woodward plans new structure

UPDATED: Mon., Oct. 5, 2020

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward speaks at a ceremony announcing a partnership between the VA medical center and the WSU medical school on Aug. 31 in Spokane. The mayor is undertaking a reorganization at City Hall.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward speaks at a ceremony announcing a partnership between the VA medical center and the WSU medical school on Aug. 31 in Spokane. The mayor is undertaking a reorganization at City Hall. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

It’s not an overhaul, city leaders say, but more of a refinement.

Less than a year into the job, Mayor Nadine Woodward announced last week a shift in the leadership structure within City Hall that will narrow the number of people who report directly to the city administrator on major initiatives.

More than a dozen department heads report directly to the administration, but the new plan will designate leaders across five strategic areas in city government who will be responsible for spearheading collaboration with the City Council’s committees and collaboration across city divisions.

“It does narrow that span of managerial control, which was very, very broad,” Woodward told The Spokesman-Review on Friday.

Despite that shift, Woodward said it doesn’t mean department leaders “won’t have access to the city administration at all.”

“My door is always open; people drop by all the time,” Woodward said.

The shift was announced the same week City Administrator Wes Crago abruptly submitted his resignation from the No. 2 post in City Hall, giving little hint about the reasons for his departure aside from describing his leadership style as better-suited for smaller towns.

Woodward’s administration has deflected assertions that Crago’s departure is connected to the restructuring.

The administration has not yet unveiled a new organizational chart, named team leaders, or finalized a new reporting structure. She’s met with cabinet members one-on-one and as a group twice this week to help put the finishing touches on the plan.

The new structure does not require the city to hire new people. Rather, it will tap existing department leaders to serve as team leaders in addition to their current roles.

As a new mayor, Woodward has surrounded herself with seasoned hands in local government and holdovers from the administration of then-Mayor David Condon.

Due to retirements, Woodward appointed a new city chief financial officer and director of human resources this year. She also filled a vacancy in the role of director of emergency management.

But she tapped Scott Simmons, Condon’s director of the Department of Public Works who stayed on to work for Woodward, to serve as acting city administrator in Crago’s absence. Her spokesperson, Director of Communications and Marketing Brian Coddington, left the Condon administration but returned to work for Woodward earlier this year.

Woodward championed her victory as “the change that voters wanted” on election night last year, but said Friday she never intended to come into city hall as “that kind of a change agent.”

“What I ran on was – and I think I’ve been able to accomplish – is collaboration, especially between the mayor’s office and City Council,” Woodward.

The City Council doesn’t dispute it.

By the end of Condon’s final term, the relationship between council and mayor had devolved almost entirely. Already, Woodward and the council have agreed on key measures, including the opening of a downtown police precinct and an emergency order on the city’s COVID-19 response.

But Councilwoman Lori Kinnear noted that Crago was a major factor in the improved relationship and hopes that it can continue in his absence.

“We want to make sure that we’re being collaborative,” Kinnear said. “Nobody wants to go back to the way things were. That was just way too stressful and took way too much energy and bandwidth.”

Council President Breean Beggs also confirmed that the bond between the council and city administrator and mayor has healed under Woodward. But the rest of the administration “is on a case-by-case basis” with each council member, he said.

Though she acknowledged the improved relationship between the two branches of government and credited Woodward for it, Councilwoman Karen Stratton objected to the appointment of Simmons, who has come into conflict with council members in the past, as interim city administrator.

“My concern as they prepare to move this forward and to enlighten us on what the plan is, the challenge will be building back the communication and trust that was lost in the last administration with Scott Simmons,” Stratton said.

Coddington noted that Simmons’ appointment is temporary and Simmons has informed Woodward he does not want to fill the city administrator post on a permanent basis. The administration will search for Crago’s replacement.

THE PLAN: The administration will appoint what it characterizes as team leaders in five “strategic” areas: public safety and health, public infrastructure, resident experience, management and budget, and internal services.

Those categories line up well with how people actually interact with and think of city government, Coddington said. Police and fire are lumped into a single category, with services like solid waste pickup and the parks department in another.

The structure also aligns well with the mayor’s own initiatives, which include rethinking housing and homelessness, improving public safety, and developing the local economy.

Four of the five categories also match the City Council’s own committee structure, with the exception of “internal services.”

The reorganization has been something Woodward has looked into since the latter half of the summer, Coddington said. It was inspired, in part, by how the city has responded to the COVID-19 crisis, the conversations about police reform, and the rapid establishment of a safer air center as wildfire smoke blanketed Spokane last month.

The administration believes dividing government into five areas will engender better collaboration between divisions. Parks and Recreation, the Spokane Public Library and Neighborhood & Business Services, for example, will all now be under a single umbrella – even if only informally.

The goal is “to solve problems much more holistically” rather than individually, Coddington argued.

A chaotic 2020 also demonstrated to Woodward that there was no clear succession plan or opportunities for leaders to simply get some rest and relaxation. A new structure will make those lines of command more clear, the administration believes.

“Some (department heads) haven’t even taken a week off this year, if that,” Woodward said.

The coronavirus pandemic forced many people at City Hall to work outside their normal roles – Coddingon himself spent hours every week at the county’s Emergency Coordination Center – and challenged city government.

It’s counterintuitive, Coddington acknowledges, but “you build a little more structure into the organization so you can be more flexible.”

“The more traditional the structure is, the more it allows people to think outside the box to be creative in times of crisis,” Coddington said.

The new structure will be piloted for about 100 days and tweaked as necessary in January. It does not require the approval of the city council, according to the administration, because the city is not formally creating new departments or department heads.

Council members know little about the plan and have not been formally briefed on it.

As long as the changes are informal, Beggs said the council does not need to vote on the plan.

“In general, in terms of how people are reporting is more of a mayoral concern rather than a council concern,” Beggs said.

Stratton said the terms sounded like administrative “jibber-jabber.”

“At the end of the day, does that help me take care of the homeless on the street or the family in West Central who needs help with day care?” Stratton asked.

This story was changed on October 5, 2020 to correct the the number of cabinet members she has hired this year who had not previously served under Mayor David Condon. Since taking office, Woodward has appointed Tonya Wallace as CFO and Amber Richards as human resources director, following the retirement of those departments’ respective leaders. She also filled a vacancy in the position of director of emergency management.

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